January 15 marks the birthday of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., born in 1929 and killed years before his time in Memphis in 1968. An inspirational figure, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize during his lifetime, and both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal posthumously for his work advancing the civil rights movement using non-violent means. In celebration of his life, we’ve assembled a streaming playlist featuring some rare footage, some unexpected appearances, and a couple of movies inspired by his work.
NBC NEWS TIME CAPSULE: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. LOOK HERE (Hulu)
Thanks to the wonder of the Internet — and specifically, the wonders of NBC and Hulu — it’s possible to revisit an earlier time when Dr. King was merely breaking into the public consciousness. This news report from October, 1957 features “Reverend Martin L. King, pastor” discussing civil rights in the U.S. of the time and his “almost overnight” fame. A genuinely fascinating time capsule.
”I HAVE A DREAM” (YouTube)
Arguably King’s most important — and almost certainly his most famous — speech, the 1963 oratory delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom remains a high-water mark for public addresses. Originally titled “Normalcy, Never Again,” the speech most know as “I Have A Dream” is, perhaps surprisingly, a copyrighted work (a 1999 lawsuit made that clear), ensuring that it is rarely re-broadcast or replayed in its entirety even on his birthday. Luckily, the Internet is dedicated to ensuring that information wants to be free.
”THE THREE EVILS OF SOCIETY” (YouTube)
Described as “an almost-lost” speech by Dr. King, this address to the National Conference for New Politics in 1967 addresses the failure of America to make good on its promise of all men being equal in a way which remains sadly true today. “What happens to a dream deferred?” he asks. “It leads to bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness.”
”I HAVE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP” (YouTube)
King’s final speech — delivered just a day before his murder on April 4, 1968 — was directed, primarily, towards the then-current Memphis Sanitation Strike, which he uses as a means to talk about the need for non-violent protest, economic action and injustices within the American system.
THE LONG WALK HOME (Netflix)
Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek lead the cast of his fictionalized tale set during the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama that ultimately brought Dr. King to national attention. Firmly in the genre of stories about civil rights that manage to prioritize the white experience — the movie is even narrated by the daughter of Spacek’s character, to emphasize that — it manages to sanitize what was happening at the time while trying to condemn it. File under “well-meaning, but misguided,” but such projects are necessary in their own way.
KING: MAN OF PEACE IN A TIME OF WAR (Hulu)
A documentary about the work (and impact) of Dr. King that features such luminaries as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, King has two tricks up its sleeve that make it worth checking out. Firstly, there’s the contextualization of King’s activities with the Vietnam War, which makes for fascinating viewing — and more importantly, there’s an interview with King himself, unseen for four decades before its use in this film. A fascinating take on a great man.
30 FOR 30: GHOSTS OF OLE MISS (Netflix)
Trust ESPN to find an unexpected angle on the civil rights movement of King’s era. This documentary tells the story of the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi campus and the effect that had on the school’s football team (spoilers: things started off with a riot that ended with the death of two men, an event later turned into a Bob Dylan song).
THE WITNESS: FROM THE BALCONY OF ROOM 306 (Amazon Prime Streaming)
The final weeks of Dr. King’s life are re-examined in this documentary, the title of which refers to Reverend Samuel Kyles, who was standing on the balcony next to Dr. King when he was shot. Rev. Kyles is just one of a number of important people from that period to talk in the movie, which also features Taylor Rodgers, one of the sanitation workers striking that Dr. King was in Memphis to support. The result is touching and inspirational.
I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) (Hulu)
King makes an unexpected cameo in Vilgot Sjöman’s drama about the socially-active Lena, who interviews King in a documentary sequence in the middle of the otherwise fictionalized movie and gets him talking about civil disobedience during a 1966 trip to Stockholm. Considering the content of the rest of the movie — which was the subject of legal proceedings over whether it could be considered pornographic or not — King’s appearance is definitely a surprise, but definitely not an unwelcome one.
DRAGNET: “MANAGEMENT SERVICES” (Hulu)
In the wake of King’s murder, the world struggled to come to terms with its impact. One of the most dissonant moments of that struggle came in the form of this episode of the 1960s TV cop show, broadcast just months later and set on the day of King’s death, with Friday and Gannon preparing for riots that never arrived in Los Angeles following the news. Well-meaning but tone-deaf, it still manages to serve as a sign of how highly King was regarded even within square mainstream America at the time.